Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Adventures in Cooking: Peanut Butter Bars

This recipe is ideal for when you've been craving good chocolate chip cookies for like 3 weeks straight, but whenever you go to MOM's, they are out of your favorite brand, so on your third visit, you finally settle for the other brand, which is so awful you decide to swear off reviewing Giant Cookies because you just can't take the disappointment any more, and when you try to go to Safeway to get some of their delicious chocolate chip cookies which are even better than their chocolate candy cookies, they are so overcooked you leave without buying them, so finally after days of being too busy to buy or make cookies, you are finally on your last nerve and you vow to make some cookies of your own. Yeah, this recipe is perfect for that.


1 ¾ c. flour
1 ¼ c. packed brown sugar
¾ c. peanut butter
½ c. butter, softened
3 Tbsp. milk
1 egg
1 Tbsp. vanilla extract
¾ tsp. salt
¾ tsp. baking soda
1 c. chocolate chips


Mix ingredients together.

Wow, this recipe is so simple—let's make it a bit more complicated.
  1. Start midway down the list, with the peanut butter, then work on the butter.
  2. It would be wasteful to get out a whole new bowl just to soften the butter, so just cut the stick in half and microwave it in the lid of your peanut butter jar, which you have used up anyway.

    Nothing can go wrong with that!

    Nope, nothing went wrong with that!
  3. Scrape the thoroughly melted butter into the bowl.
  4. You don't have milk, so use 3 Tbsp. egg nog.
  5. Move back up to the top of the list and add the flour.
  6. Make sure that your brown sugar has completely solidified since the last time you used it (how did that happen?) and somehow manage to scrape the approximation of a cup and a fourth into some measuring cups.
  7. Boy, this dough is sure dryer than you remember it being! Add a splash of water to make it easier to mix. Then remember you haven't added the egg yet, which would contribute the missing amount of liquid.
  8. You don't have an egg, so use vegan egg substitute.
  9. Don't bother measuring out the vanilla, just estimate with your eyeballs...but be sure to accidentally estimate a teaspoon instead of a tablespoon!
  10. Also estimate the salt and baking soda. Baking—despite the drivel they try to sell you about chemical reactions and all that nonsense, it's not an exact science!
  11. Now the dough is too soft, so balance out that added water with a light dusting of flour.
  12. Toss in a few handfuls of chocolate chips.
Tada! That was easy. Hardly an Adventure in Cooking at all!

Pour batter into a greased 9x13" baking pan.

Bake at 375° for around 20 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in center comes out clean. But you don't have a toothpick either, so just guess you'll need 5 more minutes, then remove the pan when the top is slightly browner than you would like it.

Let cool, then put in refrigerator. For some reason this type of cookie has a much nicer texture when kept cold. Eat it, and wish you'd taken it out of the oven after the original 20 minutes.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

...But there is a great big ARRRRRRR!

"No news is good news," they say, but whoever does say that probably isn't freezing their buns off waiting to find out when their furnace is going to be fixed. I, however, am.

On Friday, when I hadn't heard anything from the warranty company regarding my claim for my pooped-out furnace, I called them. At 4:00 in the afternoon, I finally got the news: despite having had a whole day to do it, my furnace technician had not yet contacted my warranty company with a status report, and without a report, my warranty company could not move forward with authorizing the repair. This news was assuredly not good. Perhaps "no news" would have actually been better, as in that case, my ignorance could have possibly been bliss. Now I'm not feeling bliss so much as a seething rage.

At that time, I was told by the HMS representative that I might have to wait up to 48 hours for any kind of response. At 54 hours, I called again, and was given the heartening news that the report still had not been filed, and they would call me as soon as they had an update. Meanwhile the temperature outside was 32 degrees. For something that qualified as an "emergency" 3 days before, it certainly seemed to be of no importance to anyone now.

Finally, Monday morning, I was notified that my claim had gone to their "research department," to determine whether my policy would cover the replacement. When asked how long that would take, the representative guessed it would probably be about one business day.

Well, thanks, HMS! I may not have any heat, but by now, I could probably construct a cozy snowsuit out of red tape.

How does someone function under conditions like these? Well, let me tell you!

Something that I learned from the technician's visit was that if your furnace is overheating, it might not be enough to just turn it off and back on again (the first trick that every IT professional turns to when trying to solve a problem). The rollout switch (the thing responsible for turning off the burners when it overheats) needs to be reset by hand, and can't be accessed without taking the front plate off the unit. The tech showed me the flames "rolling out" (how the switch gets its name) as well as how to reach in underneath (when the burners are no longer lit, of course!) and reset the switch. 

As he was speaking, you could see his face change as he realized, "OMG, I'm just teaching this nice lady how to set her house on fire." As he kept talking, his advice changed from, "Here's how to do it," to "You should probably only do this when you can be downstairs to keep an eye on it, " to "You really shouldn't do this at all."

But it was too late! I did it! I'm not going to let a little fire hazard stand between me and being warm!

So, since the tech's visit, I began visiting my furnace every time it crapped out, to reset the rollout switch and give my geriatric piece of HVAC equipment another chance at life. When the tech came, the furnace only would run for 10-15 minutes before overheating, so as you can imagine, it never got very warm in the house, and I was required to be constantly on the alert for cold-air-blowing (as well as, I guess, fires). It wasn't long, though, before I learned a trick to make this process more efficient.

When I began writing my last blog post and started looking online for the names of furnace parts so I could accurately describe what was going on, I ran across this tidbit of advice: "Do not close off more than 20 percent of the registers in your house. This can cause high resistance and unnecessary heat build-up in the furnace." Well, shiver me timbers! As a rule, I have always closed almost all the registers in my house (the better to keep a tropical level of heat, but only in the rooms I spend the most time in). I decided to open a couple of the vents and see if this would enable the furnace to run longer.

It seemed to work! Friday evening, the furnace ran consistently right up until its scheduled shutoff time. Saturday morning, I had less luck—I had to reset the rollout switch one time, but after that, it was smooth sailing.

That is, until the carbon monoxide detector went off. I'll keep this part brief so as not to terrify those who value my life, but suffice it to say that no one was harmed by any toxic fumes. Since the carbon monoxide incident on Friday, I've been much more creative with my thermal maintenance.

My new strategy for keeping warm involves lots of strategic window-covering and uncovering (not particularly helpful on a gloomy day like today), 2 space heaters, a heat lamp, and liberal use of the oven.

This has kept the house a nice toasty 58 degrees (its lowest temp so far was 54, which is what the thermostat read when I got up this morning), and I hope it will do the job until my replacement furnace arrives on (fingers crossed!) Thursday.

I have to give HMS credit; while it took forever and a day for the HVAC people to send in the proper forms (or whatever mysterious behind-the-scenes things they do when submitting claims to HMS), it was only a matter of hours from the time my claim went to the research department, before I received another call to let me know my claim would be covered.

That's right, I'm getting a new furnace for free! Free plus 1,567 dollars in required upgrades and modifications.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

There's no "fun" in "furnace"

Sometimes, you try to pat yourself on the back, and you end up dislocating your shoulder.

I probably should not have posted the list of things I've accomplished around the house, because it must have awoken the angry housing gods. Less than 36 hours after my post, I got up to get dressed in the morning, and noticed cold air blowing out of my heat vent. With a sinking feeling, I checked the thermostat and confirmed that it was only 64 degrees in the house—definitely not warm enough for the furnace to be on its cool-down cycle already.

I stayed calm! I troubleshot my furnace like a pro, and this is what I concluded:
  1. It was blowing cold air even though it was not warm enough in the house
  2. The burners inside the furnace were not burning
  3. It would not turn off, even when I set the thermostat to OFF.
I consulted the internet about this somewhat bizarre behavior, and I determined that there were 2 likely causes.
  1. The furnace could have overheated due to a clogged filter
  2. The thermostat could be sending faulty signals to the heater, which is likely in the case of low batteries
Well, the first condition was easy enough to test. I took out the filter and examined it—clean as a whistle! The second test took me a while. Since my thermostat wasn't flashing a low battery signal, I disregarded the batteries and just assumed that if anything was broken, it was the thermostat itself, seeing as it looked like it had a few years under its belt. Fortunately, I have a backup thermostat (the one I bought for the apartment), so I took all the wires and batteries out of the existing thermostat and put them in the new one. The new thermostat kept flickering and beeping and wouldn't do anything right, so finally I conceded that maybe the batteries were the problem. I installed new batteries, and the thermostat behaved normally, so I re-hooked up the old thermostat, using the new batteries this time. This resulted in no change—the furnace kept blowing cold air incessantly. After messing around with the thermostats for a while, I was reasonably certain that they were working as they should, because I was hearing the appropriate "clicks" when they were cycling on and off.

Given that the furnace is "probably as old as you are," (as a technician said to me once) and that I'd been advised to replace it by every single qualified person who ever looked at it, I was pretty sure that the furnace had finally lost its mind and was in need of professional help. I was also hoping that there was something so wrong with it that my home warranty would finally cover its replacement, which was the whole reason that I'd been given the home warranty in the first place.

Apparently the housing gods aren't completely irate with me, because they did wait until a 60+ degree day to knock my furnace out of commission, and the warranty company was able to get me an appointment to have it looked at the very same day. 

The tech who visited used a lot of words that I immediately forgot, but the gist of it was: flames are blowing out of my furnace in the wrong direction, causing parts of it to overheat, and triggering a safety switch to turn off the flames and blow cold air to cool itself down. The reason the flames are misbehaving is likely a crack or leak somewhere. 

The takeaway from this story is the following: If your heater is blowing cold air, the burners might not be working, and if your heater won't turn off, the thermostat might not be working. But if your heater is blowing cold air AND won't turn off, it's probably because it's been overheating, and there are more reasons for overheating than simple clogged filter.

What this means for me is, I can't avoid it any more; this time I really need to replace the furnace.

Sadly, though, this is not something that can be done immediately. First, the repair company needs to check with the warranty company to find out if the replacement will be covered. Then, they'll need to order the new unit and perform various feats of bureaucracy, and I probably can't expect to have a fully functioning heater for a week or more. While I'm waiting, I expect to be very cold. 
Rest assured this will be a story in installments. Keep your eyes open for follow-up posts, and in the meantime, keep the home fires burning! Or not, as the case may be.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

My 7-month checked-list

Today, I have owned my house for 7 months. When I bought it, it didn't seem like a fixer-upper, but it turned out to be (my boyfriend and I nicknamed it the Bubalou house, because it's so cute but so needy)! So after I began discovering all the problems, I set a personal goal of doing one house project a day. Sometimes it was cleaning up the mess the previous owners left behind; sometimes it was just the necessary day-to-day cleaning. Sometimes it was a big semi-construction project; sometimes it's just making yet another shopping trip to Home Depot. For the first 4 weeks, it was mainly just trying to get my dishwasher to work. But yes, for around 3 months, I basically worked on my house in some capacity every day.

The daily goals kind of fell by the wayside when I began constructing an epic Halloween costume, but there's still plenty more to do, and I'm continuing to plug away (if at a less strenuous pace).
Being a cheapskate and priding myself on my creativity, I refuse to enlist professional help for all but the most difficult jobs (no, the dishwasher saga didn't teach me anything, and yes, I did consent to calling a technician when the air conditioner broke, and yes, of course it did.) which means I've been McGuyvering a lot of DIY solutions to things that I probably shouldn't be!
  • "Waterproofed" the bathroom window ledge, by which I mean I glued a piece of painted wood to it and coated the edges with silicone.
    No water's gonna gather on that window ledge, now that there's
    an angled piece of wood and lumps of silicone all over it!
  • "Improved" the ventilation around the attic, which basically involved poking the huge sheets of insulation with a stick.
  • "Insulated" the hole where an attic fan should be but isn't. This involved salvaging all the insulation from the two dishwashers that I discarded during my dishwasher project, folding them up and stuffing them into the space behind the fan grate.
  • Grounded all the outlets Started an outlet-grounding project with high hopes and the aid of someone who knew slightly more about wiring than me, but after a series of snafus, settled for replacing just three of the 2-prong outlets with GFCI outlets.
  • Braced poorly made and poorly installed window screens so they could actually serve as screens instead of leaving gaping holes for bugs to fly through
  • Delegated the task of building a shed ramp (from salvaged nails and lumber found in backyard) to a visiting helper
  • Reattached all parts of shed ramp with screws after they got loose
  • Repaired the holey storm door screen with a needle and thread (later cutting new pieces of screen and gluing them on in a very attractive patchwork!)
    Wow, take a look at that artful screen fix!
  • Made a new threshold for the storm door with glue and a discarded piece of a friend's closet (it fell off after a couple months)
  • Hung three towel bars (all free, thanks to Freecycle and me taking the one I bought for my old house with me when I moved)
  • Tightened loose door hinges all around the house and replaced missing screws
  • Cleaned up the messy paint jobs all around the house
  • Cleaned (by removing years' of dust and dead cockroaches) and repaired (by straightening out the very deformed metal dampers) two heat vents
Eventually, though, I had to concede that some projects do require the purchase of brand new materials. Armed with about 300 dollars in Home Depot gift cards, I was able to accomplish the following:
  • Restarted the jammed sink disposal (it's easy once you have the right size hex key!)
  • Sealed the shed ramp with new wood sealant when it began to get mushy after it rained
  • Made one window screen from kit
  • Re-screened one window screen (using new screen and a screening tool but salvaged spline)
  • Opened a permanently sealed heat vent and added a (new) closeable grate
  • Re-bolted the toilet to the floor (with a new bolt kit, 2 wax rings, and lots and lots and lots of help)
    Nothing like a perfectly sized cap over your closet bolt, eh?
My friend tells me I'll have to take down my blog if I ever want to sell my house, because there are so many incriminating things in it! The easier solution would be to just stop writing about how horrible my house is. But I won't!

I tell every embarrassing story, because I can! And I write down every list of accomplishments, not because I imagine anyone will be interested, but just because it makes me feel better about the huge quantity of work that I have yet to do. I've made such progress, surely one day this struggle will come to an end!



OK, I guess I'm gonna go worry about my plumbing now. Laters!